I’m in Atlanta, channeling my inner Scarlett. But remember that scene in Gone with the Wind where the city goes up in flames?
True story. So, as history would have it, all that’s left here to fully bring back the era is the home of the tale’s notorious author, Peggy Mitchell (the Margaret Mitchell House) — and a café called Pittypat’s Porch, an homage to all things antebellum, including rocking chairs, mint juleps and traditional Southern dining.
These days the city of Atlanta — often one of the cheapest places to fly from MSP — is a decidedly modern destination.
Though the city hosted the Super Bowl earlier this year, it was the Olympics in 1996 that helped shape the town as we know it today, including Centennial Olympic Park, a grassy outdoor playground hosting five of the city’s must-see attractions amid the towers of downtown as well as the iconic SkyView ferris wheel ($12.50 for ages 65 and up):
1: The Georgia Aquarium — largest in North America — beguiles visitors with beluga whales as big as submarines, sharks smiling through rows of spiky teeth and dolphins far more graceful than the pen-guins that shuffle about like circus clowns.
2: Who doesn’t want to tour the World of Coca-Cola? Step up to the vault that allegedly contains the Secret Recipe (photo op), then slurp free samples as you watch commercials for the product in languages from Urdu to Ukrainian and ad campaigns through the ages: Remember Santa’s treat on Christmas Eve?
3: At the Chick-fil-A College Football Hall of Fame, enter your alma mater and your visitor’s badge will call up its football lore at every interactive display. You can “run” with your team onto the field; recruit players (weighing skill against travel and bonus expenses); and record the game’s play-by-play as an “announcer.”
Go on: Belt “Minnesota, Hats off to Thee” into a karaoke mic. Then leap onto the turf to try to kick an actual field goal, throw a touchdown or catch a pass.
4: Next tour CNN Center, where you’re greeted by the news headquarters’ motto: “Facts are facts. They are indisputable.”
Here you can also check off your bucket list item of riding the longest freestanding escalator in the world — at 196 feet — as part of the 50-minute guided studio tour. (Save money on this and other attractions with a special package at citypass.com/atlanta.)
5: The park’s fifth site is the National Center for Civil and Human Rights. In this city that birthed the movement, you’ll start by taking in vicious quotes from segregationists. You’ll proceed through films and broadcasts of historic events, from braver-than-brave Freedom Riders to kids pioneering school integration. Experience lunch counter sit-ins, where you’re invited, if you dare, to don headphones spouting obscene diatribes. Blend into the life-size montage of the march across the Selma bridge.
Continue the story in Sweet Auburn, the historic home of the city’s black middle class, where the Martin Luther King Jr. National Historical Park recounts the life of the peaceful resistance leader. Across the street stands Ebenezer Baptist Church, where you can hear King preach (via a recording); then visit his boyhood home and tomb nearby.
Speaking of goodwill toward men: Peace is also the theme at the Jimmy Carter Presidential Library and Museum, where visitors can trace the man’s rise from humble peanut farmer to governor, then President, and see his dedication (which continues in his retirement) to getting enemies like Israel and Egypt to sit down and talk instead of fight.
Atlanta’s skyline looks toward tomorrow — shiny towers that rise as the New South. But beneath those polished turrets, the city’s new Atlanta BeltLine Eastside Trail invites folks to trade the fast lane for a hike or bike ride on the wild(er) side as the paved path winds its way from
Ponce City Market, the city’s social magnet for eats and entertainment. Along the route, you’ll spot cheeky murals brightening underpasses as you wander past the brew pubs, indie boutiques, baseball diamonds and skate parks sprouting up amid the wild flowers and pines.
Speaking of DIY art, the Outsider collection at the venerable High Museum of Art is as good as it gets. Its photo gallery also salutes visionaries like Diane Arbus and Cindy Sherman. And its contemporary café elevates Southern classics like deviled eggs and fried green tomatoes to high art alongside classy cocktails.
Atlanta’s perimeter hosts the DeKalb Farmers Market, an alias for a covered marketplace roughly the size of the Pentagon, featuring spices from sumac to mango powder, 12 kinds of squash and two long aisles devoted solely to potatoes. The market roasts its own coffee, makes its own sausages, pasta and bagels, and offers a cafeteria for primo people-watching.
Find more eats at Matthews Cafeteria, in the nearby town of Tucker, whose third-generation owner proclaims, “Welcome to the New South. But our change is not to change — not hopping on a trend.”
Thus, it’s famous for the best fried chicken in the county. Here’s the recipe, unaltered since 1955 — bird, flour, salt and pepper, fried at 326 degrees (“not 325, not 327”).
The Food Terminal, in a strip mall anchoring the small town of Chamblee, conjures the street-food scene of East Asia in a menu thick as a magazine. It’s high on Atlanta magazine’s “best new restaurants” list.
Atlanta gave birth to the Waffle House chain, so it’s only fitting that the site of the original breakfast haven of 1955 serves as a time-warp museum. Across the street rises The Odd’s End, an antiques shop where you can snag a ventriloquist’s Charlie McCarthy puppet, false teeth, a billy club or a stuffed frog.
Enticed? For more info, visit atlanta.net.
Not all Georgia towns were scorched by William Tecumseh Sherman.
Madison, about an hour west of downtown Atlanta, gleams with stately mansions saved from the Civil War general’s torch. Today its historic district boasts over 50 antebellum homes (a self-tour app is available), leading off with Heritage Hall, erected in 1811 by a fellow who became the town’s doctor after completing one year of medical school (they call that “practicing medicine”). Madison-Morgan Cultural Center, built in 1895 as a grade school, now opens its stunning auditorium for cultural events.
In Milledgeville, Sherman destroyed venues of commerce, but spared the graceful antebellum mansions of the city, which once served as Georgia’s capital.
A trolley tour through the historic district stops for visitors to explore several antebellum sites, such as Rose Hill, a white-columned Greek Revival home of 1852 (pictured below); the Old State Capitol, where Georgia seceded from the Union; and the Brown-Stetson-Sanford House, built in 1825 as a hotel and café, where Southern author Flannery O’Connor was a frequent patron.
Other historic sites include the Old Governor’s Mansion, occupied by Sherman during his march to the sea — and Andalusia, a cotton plantation where author O’Connor lived and managed the farm’s precarious operations.
More authors called Eatonton home — in fact, the tiny town is home to the Georgia Writers Museum, which honors, among others, its literary trinity — O’Connor, Alice Walker (The Color Purple), who will return to celebrate her 75th birthday in July 2019, and Joel Chandler Harris, author of the folksy Uncle Remus stories (brought to life in the Joel Chandler Harris Museum, housed in former slaves’ quarters).
Eatonton also hosts the Plaza Arts Center, a former schoolhouse now serving as a historical museum, tracing from earlier Creek Indian beginnings to the reign of King Cotton and black sharecroppers. Learn more about this Historic Heartland region of Georgia at exploregeorgia.org.
Carla Waldemar is an award-winning food/travel/arts writer. She edits the annual Zagat Survey of Twin Cities restaurants and writes food and travel articles for publications around the world. She lives in Uptown.